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Rice 31, FIU 17
Owls jump to early 17-0 lead; after letting FIU back in, coast home primarily on strength of swarming defense, which pitches another second-half shutout
BREAKING THE ICE -- Rice running back Jowan Davis crosses the pylon from 19 yards out on Owls' first play from scrimmage, making it 7-0 30 seconds deep into the game (PTH photo)

 -- Senior WR Jordan Taylor had a big day for Owls, with six catches for 115 yards including this 63-yard TD reception from Driphus Jackson which put Rice up, 17-0, ten minutes deep into the game (PTH photo)

MIAMI (Nov. 2) – It was like deja vu all over again.

As they had the week before against North Texas, the Rice Owls scored on their first offensive play from scrimmage, and then once again a swarming Owl defense completely shut down the FIU Panthers in the second half to preserve a 31-17 victory going away.

The Flock’s fifth straight win lifted them to a 3-1 record in C-USA, paving the route for what is rounding out in the month of November to be a four-game sudden-death playoff for the division crown, for consecutive wins over UTSA, Marshall, UTEP, and Lousiana Tech are what it’s going to take in order for the Owls to control their own destiny.

At times Saturday, the Institute Boys played as if they would be fully capable of pulling off the feat, while at other points in the game, it appeared as if the Owls were a little premature in taking their foot off the gas pedal.

Jumping to a 17-0 ten minutes into the game will do that to you, though. In fact, with the intensity in which the Owls surged to such a quick and easy three-score lead, it initially looked as if the Panthers were going to provide little competition.

That all changed on a wing and a Hail-Mary prayer of a pass by FIU quarterback Alex McGough. Down 17-0, and facing second and 15 at his own 48 yard line, the freshman signal-caller was facing a fourth straight shutdown by the Owl defenders, when he dropped back and heaved the ball as hard as he could, against a stiff, swirling wind, toward the corner of the Rice end zone.

It was anybody’s guess where the ball might come down – as likely in the cheap seats as it were to be in the hands of a Panther receiver. But in the end zone scrum, FIU’s Glenn Coleman managed to haul it in, and that put the locals on the board at 17-7; no longer a seeming runaway, the Owls suddenly were facing prospects of a well-contested game.

Owls got the wakeup call this time around

Didn’t look that way from right at the beginning, however. Rice won the toss and deferred, taking the wind, A heavy rush caused FIU quarterback Alex McGough (pronounced M’Goo, as in Mister) to badly miss in his first two throwing attempts, and then on third and 10, he was swarmed under for a loss of six by Zach Patt – the first of the Owl defensive end’s five quarterback sit-downs on the day.

Oh, and that play also resulted in the first of Zach’s three forced fumbles in the game, as the force of Zach’s blow caused the FIU rookie quarterback to cough up the pill, and who else but Mr. Patt jumped on it at the Panther 19 yard line.

First play, Jowan Davis took the quick pitch and ran wide, reaching the pylon from 19 yards out to put the Owls up, 7-0, just 30 seconds into the game.

A moment later, the Panthers were once again facing fourth and 10 at their own 35 when punter Jay Laphitzondo sent a low line drive 26 yards into the wind. Starting from the Rice 40, Driphus Jackson immediately connected with Dennis Parks for 12 yards in the first down.

Next play, DJ scrambled for 19 more yards to the FIU 25. But a muffed sideline pass and a fruitless attempt at the center of the line by Jowan Davis made it third and long, and Jordan Taylor could not escape the grasp of his defender after catching a short pass up the middle.

So the Owls settled for a 32-yard James Farrimond field goal, making it 10-0 with 8:50 remaining in the first quarter.

FIU garnered but a single first down on its next possession. But this time, FIU managed to secure good field position as the Panther punter got off a bounding, end-over-end line drive that carried 48 yards to the Rice 14 yard line.

The Owls struck back quickly, however. After Darik Dillard plunged through the line for 19 yards to the Rice 37, Dreyfus found Jordan Taylor open on a crossing route. Jordan reached back, made the catch, evaded a tackler, and then once again got those long legs going as he zoomed to 63 yards into the end zone to make it 17-0 Rice barely ten minutes deep into the game.

Man, that was easy. Can’t help but taking the foot off the gas a little bit after such a walk in the park, right?

Two quick TDs, and Panthers were right back in it

Somewhat alarmingly, after FIU first managed to get on the board, on the Owls’ ensuing possession, they went three and out for the only time in the first half. FIU then set up a drive starting at its own 27, and found that going slow until quarterback McGough dropped back and flung the ball down the home sideline, where Glenn Coleman once again made a stretching grab. The play was good for 49 yards to the Rice 9 yard line.

After McGough was nailed for a loss of two on first and goal, the handoff went to FIU’s Maxwell and he ran to daylight and the pylon. That made the score 17-14, Rice, and a whole new ballgame, as they say.

Rice got seven of those points back in a hurry, however. On the second play of the Owls’ next possession, Driphus found frosh wide receiver James Mayden in the clear down the middle; so much in the clear that he was able to reach back and grasp a slightly under thrown ball (into a stiff wind, one might add), and streak 69 yards for the score. That made it 24-14 Rice, giving the Owls a bit of a cushion, while setting the stage for Rice’s second half defensive heroics.

“It was a horrible pass,” DJ said after the game – “a horrible pass but James made a play on the ball, and he was able to make a few guys miss him with his speed. That’s all you could really ask for. It’s a comfort to me to know that I can put the ball in the vicinity and my guy will be able to make a play on it – but I have to do my part and make it easier for them to make plays.”

FIU went back to the short game on its next possession, holding the ball for almost 8 minutes and 16 plays. As the halftime clock ticked down, the Panthers were facing a first and goal at the Rice seven, when Anthon Samuel was dropped for a loss of one by Gabe Baker

FIU quarterback McGough scrambled for three yards on second and goal, and then, under a heavy rush by James Radcliffe, threw incomplete to his Richard Burrows, who was well-covered by Julius White.

At that point, the Panthers decided to take the three, and punched in a 22 yard Austin Taylor field-goal to make it 24-17 with just over a minute left in the half.

Reviews mixed as Owls headed into halftime locker room

Could’ve been better; could’ve been worse as the Owls headed into the halftime locker room. “I feel like in the first quarter we came out ready, but in the second quarter we kind of flatlined it,”  Zach Patt said afterwards – never mind his monster game, which earned him a helmet sticker from Coach Lou Holtz on the late-night ESPN roundup.

“During halftime coach Bailiff talked about bringing the intensity back up to what it was in the first quarter,” Zach added. “I felt like we did that toward the end.”

Yeah, there were some halftime adjustments, Coach Bailiff allowed – but they were minor.

“So much of it truly was just the seniors on that side of the football. You make some little adjustments, but little adjustments don’t lead to the kind of sacks we had. That’s passion; that’s guys who are playing for each other wanting to go out and get a win.”

On Rice’s opening possession of the third quarter, the Owls moved out smartly, reaching as far as first and 10 at the FIU 40. From there, however, two middle of the line plunges by Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard together accounted for only 1 yard.

When on third and long DJ misfired into the wind to Mario Hull, the Owls had to punt out, which James Farrimond handled quite well, kicking it high and just short of the goal line, downed at the 9 yard line.

At that point, recall that the Panthers had held the ball for 16 plays on their previous possession. Here, a long, grinding drive definitely would have set the Owls back on their heels. That a halftime message was communicated to the Rice defensive unit became obvious, as it staged its first of several spirited defensive stands of the second half.

Brian Nordstrom first sacked quarterback McGough for a loss of seven, after which Jaylon Finner nailed Lamarq Caldwell after a short gain. The ensuing punt set up the Owls at their own 37 yard line midway through the third quarter.

From there, on third and 10, Driphus scrambled for 10 yards and what appeared to be a first down, but an Owl was flagged for holding and the play was nullified. To make matters worse, there was Driphus, lying prostrate on the ground, motionless after the play.

Since Rice’s vaunted defensive lineman Christian Covington had gone down with what appeared to be a hyperextended knee early in the second quarter, this looked to be a particularly revolting development. Driphus had to be helped off the field, but after one substitute play by his backup, Tyler Stehling, the gutty Jackson was back in the game.

FIU was jamming the box and daring Driphus to run outside, perhaps in the thinking that his shoulder was not in sufficient shape to allow him to do so with any degree of success – or to get it injured all over again, which looked to be a definite possibility after the previous play.

But on his first snap  back on the field, DJ faked the option, found a hole and sprinted for 32 yards to the FIU 31, giving the Owls a first down and pumping energy into the offense of unit.

He came right back to pick up four more yards on first down, after which Jowan Davis plied the center of the line two times in a row for three yards and then two. On the third down play he appeared to get a bad spot, resulting in fourth and less than one.

The ball, at that point, was at the FIU 22, however, and Rice coaches decided to eschew the field-goal attempt. Again, taking the deep snap, Driphus handed off to Darik Dillard, who faced a wall of defenders who’d had ample time to form up. A quick quarterback sneak most likely would’ve gotten the necessary yardage, or rather, footage, for the first down.

But that would’ve required a change in the play book, and who’s second guessing that? As one might have expected, however, the FIU defense held, though, and the Owls had squandered a scoring opportunity that would’ve gone a long way to put the game in the bag.

In response, right away, FIU’s Napoleon Maxwell scurried for 14 yards to his own 40 and a first down. If this were a start of a sustained drive, it looked at that point like the Owls might be in for some tough sledding.

Rice defense simply shut down FIU in fourth quarter

But once again the Rice defense got stingy in a hurry. Gabe Baker nailed Maxwell for short yardage on his next carry. QB McGough then scrambled for six yards on third and seven, setting up a fourth and one at the FIU 48. This time it was the Panthers’ turn to attempt the fourth-down conversion -- but Brian Nordstrom was right there, standing tall to meet the play at the line and drop FIU running back Maxwell for a loss of one.

So getting the ball right back, the Owls found themselves with excellent field position at the FIU 47. Jowan Davis got things in gear with an 11 yard ramble for a first down at the FIU 36. But then Davis plunged into a bunched up line for no gain on first down, and then DJ misfired on a couple of wind-hindered pass attempts to Cole Hunt and Luke Turner. Cole was in the clear on his circle route and although the ball sailed a little on the high side, it was catchable -- and had it been caught it would have been a quick six points for the Owls.

Oh, time. James Farrimond attempted a field goal from 42 yards out, but into the swirling wind, the ball curled just outside the uprights and the try was for naught.

By this time, however, Rice’s superior conditioning appeared to have its effect. The Panthers three and outed on their next possession, as the home team offensive line appeared to become more and more winded, and the Rice defenders appeared to gather energy with every successful stop.

Same on the offensive side, as, next possession, Driphus took the Owls to paydirt, primarily through the air, connecting with Jordan Taylor for eight, Luke Turner for 14, and Taylor for another 21 yards to the FIU three yard line. Two plays later, Luke Turner dove in from the one to make it Rice 31, FIU 17.

The rest of the contest was sort like a game of badminton, back and forth, back and forth. It was pretty much clear that the Owls had the game in hand. Coach Bailiff already had lost Christian Covington to injury, and a couple other key Owls were banged up as well.

So playing simply to run out the clock worked out to be the sensible strategy, given the proclivities of the Rice defense, which held the Panthers to a total of two first downs in the fourth quarter.

The coup de grace took place on an FIU possession that began with 3:34 left in the game. First play, FIU backup quarterback E. J. Hilliard was rudely set upon by Zach Pat and Ross Winship. Zach forced the fumble and Ross hopped on the pill -- Rice’s ball.

The Owls once again played it straight and simple, plunging into the line and eating clock; then punting away. FIU had one last chance starting at their own 20 with 1:10 left. First play, quarterback Hilliard was swarmed over by a one-man gang – guess who...Zach Patt again, this time for a sack of six.

On second and 16, Alex Lyons nailed Hilliard on the scramble for scant yardage. Then on third and 14, “Sack” Patt did it again, blowing in and catching the FIU quarterback 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage, where he unceremoniously sat him on his duff.

Time for another play, but the heck with that. FIU just stood there and let the clock run out, shook hands and got the heck off the field as quickly as they could. Equipment saved.

“What a crazy game this was,” Coach Bailiff summed up afterwards, “because in the first half the way it started with getting a takeaway and getting points – and suddenly we were up 17 to nothing on big plays. Then FIU battles back; then we get another to go into halftime up.”

“And then in the second half it was all about defense.”

“I think a lot of it was just the defense’s resolve to play better,” the Rice head man added. “You know the first half was big plays and offense and the second half was defense. We didn’t think we played that exceptionally well in the first half and I think that showed. Those big defensive plays, those sacks, just don’t happen. You’ve got a bunch of guys covering receivers for that to happen you got linebackers running with receivers. You’ve got 11 guys playing together; it was obvious.”

“What we had talked about all week was playing a four-quarter game like we played in the second half against North Texas. And we’re going to keep giving them that same message – that were going to have to play that way for four quarters.”


MIAMI (Oct.30) -- In Little Havana, a few miles down Calle Ocho from the Florida International University campus, the Viejos in Dominoes Park will have just begun to idly stir their first-of-the-day cafecitos when the Rice Owls and the FIU Golden Panthers engage in an 11 a.m. central time kickoff here Saturday.

In an unusual scheduling twist, the TV moguls have dictated late-morning kickoffs now in four of the Owls' first eight games -- considering the Houston contingent's biological clocks are set for central time. A stout cafecito or three might ought be included in the Rice pre-game ritual, what with these morning start times appearing regularly on the card.

Guess there's being on TV, and then there's being on TV. This one, once again, is of the latter variety, what with the first-of-the-day time slot on a fledgling broadcaster that goes by the name of the American Sports Network (ASN); check your local listings for channel, and keep your fingers crossed.

Assuming your provider has it on Channel 899-1 or some such, you'll get to watch the Owls try to go 1-and-0 for the fifth straight week, this time against a 3-5 FIU contingent that went 1-11 last season, but this year sports wins over Wagner, UAB and Florida Atlantic.

The Panthers gave undefeated Marshall a tussle in the first half of their most recent game two weeks ago, week, actually taking a 7-0 lead early; it was the first time all season the Thundering Herd has ever trailed in a game – which would appear to say more about the quality of the schedule rather than the invincibility of the West Virginia bunch.

The Herd went on to win going away in the second half, 45-13, and to make matters worse, FIU’s top offensive sparkplug, running back Alex Gardner, who rushed for 104 yards against MU, was banged up and is expected to miss the Rice game. Probably.

FIU is not a team with a feature quarterback, which is good news for the Owls. The Cats have been led by freshman Alex McGough at the QB spot; he threw for 176 yards on 14 completions against the Thundering Herd, including a 46-yarder to his senior receiver Cory White in the first half.

McGough is expected to draw the start again Saturday, though he departed the game late against Marshall afte tossing a couple of interceptions and was replaced by backup E. J. Hilliard.

So far on the season, in eight games McGough has thrown for 1,129 yards and eight Tds, while suffering six interceptions, total.

Add to those totals the Panthers’ rushing yardage of 113.6 per game, with seven rushing touchdowns all season, and it totals up to a tepid 21.5 points per game scoring average. And that’s with teams like Wagner and Bethune-Cookman (to whom FIU lost) on the schedule.

But don’t write them off as a potential formidable opponent just yet. FIU’s strength clearly lies in its defense, which currently ranks 31st in the nation among FBS schools at 343 yards per game allowed.

They're holding their opponents to an average of 23 points per game – and that, having faced high-scoring outfits like Pitt, and Louisville, and Marshall.

The Panthers lead the nation with 25 turnovers gained, and are tied for seventh in the FBS in turnover margin (plus-1.25). The Panthers have 74 points scored off those 25 turnovers, so Rule One would appear to be a stricture tha tthe Owls have been successful in observing thus far this season: ball security – don’t turn the damn thing over. Just don’t – and go from there.

The Panther defense is led, stat-wise, by senior Demarkus Perkins, who enters Saturday's game with 55 tackles, 37 of them, the solo variety. He’s also picked up two pass breakups, one fumble recovery and one of FIU's nine interceptions.

Juniors Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine lead the team with 5.5 sacks each. Both are tied for No. 38 in the nation in sacks-per-game (0.68). Wakefield has tallied a team-best 9.0 tackles for loss, while Perine is a close second with 7.5 tackles for loss.

Redshirt junior Richard Leonard leads the team with five interceptions and ranks number eight nationally in interceptions-per-game (0.60). The Miami native also leads the team in passes defended (6) and ranks No. 20 nationally in passes defended-per-game (1.4).

With FIU’s defense-oriented propensities, a nice, efficient game plan by the Flock might have this one over and tucked away in no more than three hours – which would give the boys a chance to head over to Calle Och’ afterwards just in time for the late Cubano lunch hour, and a fine plate or two of picadillo or ropa vieja.

But if so, don’t expect a runaway – just a garden variety, pedestrian, unexciting win, which would serve Rice’s interests quite well, thank you.

In fact, we’d take an  arroz con leche with that, for dessert. With cafecito.